Home 9 Against the Grain 9 v29 #4 Wryly Noted — Books About Books

v29 #4 Wryly Noted — Books About Books

by | Sep 26, 2017 | 0 comments

Column Editor:  John D. Riley  (Against the Grain Contributor and Owner, Gabriel Books)  

Printer’s Error: Irreverent Stories from Book History by J. P. Romney and Rebecca Romney.  Published March 14, 2017 HarperCollins Publishers.  (ISBN:  978-0-06-241231-7)


This is a serious book about printing history and some of the bizarre twists and turns it takes through authorship, typography, forgery, copyright, fine book printing and binding.  That said, the style is a humorous and personal approach to the subject.  The authors have picked seminal moments from the history of printing and added their own humorous takes on the strange situations that seem to arise when revolutionary change occurs.  You may know Rebecca Romney from “Pawn Stars” where she was resident book appraiser while employed by Bauman’s Rare Books in Las Vegas.  What appears at first glance to be a popular and snarky series of anecdotes turns out to be a look behind the scenes that are often neglected in more dry and sober accounts of printing history.

The book takes a somewhat chronological path from Gutenberg and Galileo through to Shakespeare and then Benjamin Franklin, Blake, Dickens, Mary Wollstonecraft and William Morris finishing up with the arch publicist Edward Bernays.  Along the way we learn that in the time of Galileo the cost of paper was the most expensive part of book production.  Paper at that time was made from linen rags, as wool gummed up and matted together when wet.  The ideal rags came from old stockings and underwear, hence the suppleness of paper from the first few hundred years of print.

Besides moveable type, one of Johannes Gensfleisch zur Laden zum Gutenberg’s (that is Johannes Gooseflesh from Good Mountain) inventions was the specialized ink necessary for printing using metal type.  Writing inks at that time were derived from the gall wasp and the protuberance it produced in oak trees to house its offspring.  These galls were harvested then mixed with iron for coloring and bound together with vegetable gum.  Printing inks needed to be more fatty to adhere to the metal type and Gutenberg came up with a mixture of Linseed oil and carbon soot that was sufficiently fatty.  This combination served as the primary printing ink until the advent of petroleum based inks in the twentieth century.

In another era, Benjamin Franklin also had to contend with the exorbitant prices of paper and metal type.  In his early career, printing presses, paper and type all had to be imported from England.  “During the seventeen years Franklin personally ran print shops in Philadelphia he purchased four thousand pounds of metal type.  In any given shipment, thirty pounds were just replacement quotation marks!”  Paper was not only expensive, but it took enormous shipping times and often arrived with water damage.  “It was a common enough problem that in one contemporary advertisement a binder in the Colonies boasted of his ability ‘to bind books neatly and to take the salt water out of books.’”

When Dickens toured the United States in 1841 he was greeted like a rock star.  He was followed by crowds wherever he went.  When he and his wife Kate bedded down for the night on a river steamer they awoke to find people trying to peer through their windows for a glimpse of the famous author.  Dickens received hundreds of requests for locks of his hair.  “One New York barber who serviced him turned around and immediately capitalized on this by offering his hair clippings for sale.”  Despite his great acclaim Dickens was quickly demonized in the press when he asked that the United States honor the copyright on his works.  He was vilified as greedy and mercenary.  As one paper averred it was “…ridiculous for Dickens to lecture Americans…about dollars, he who is clearly convicted as a supreme lover of them.”  At that time Dickens’ works were being pirated in newspapers and cheap reprints.  Pirating was so rampant that even railroad timetables printed his works on the blank pages.  Thomas Hood termed the book pirates “bookaneers.”  As a final insult, other publishers actually rewrote his works to make them more “American.”

In the history of fine press typography it was common practice for designers to destroy their fonts rather than let them fall into the hands of some mass production publisher.  In this line of history, Doves Press takes the prize for not only creating possibly the most beautiful type design of all time, but also the most thorough attempt at eradication.  After a dispute between the founders of the press in 1913 — T. J. Cobden-Sanderson and Emery WalkerT. J. carted the metal fonts to a nearby bridge over the Thames and over the course of 170 late night trips he drowned his great creation.  Strangely enough, while trying to revive the font in 2014, Robert Green hired divers to search the river bed and they actually salvaged 150 separate pieces from the set.  Thanks to that dive and painstaking work by Green we now have a working Doves Press font.

The authors end their book with stories from the career of Edward Bernays, the infamous publicist who convinced (paid?) doctors to recommend smoking as a means of appetite control and thus got women to take up the nasty habit as a way to stay thin…and independent.  In the world of books he will be remembered for his successful campaign to increase book sales by shaming book borrowers.  He ran a contest for the best invented word to describe these enemies of commerce.  His winners came up with such pungent epithets as Book Sneak, Blifter, and Volume Vulture.  He believed that people had to be taught to buy books.  His campaign to encourage book ownership was a success and book sales went up along with the belief that simply owning books could improve one’s social status.  That last bit of propaganda is hard to corroborate based on my own book hoarding experience.  


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